Climate Change and Security

High Noon in the Arctic

A fascinating article by Scott Borgerson in the current Foreign Affairs examines the security implications of global warming in the Arctic. With the Artic summer ice cap on track, tragically, to disappear as early as 2013 having lost over a third of its summer mass since 2001 alone, a gold rush is on in the Arctic with potentially dangerous strategic consequences.

The stakes are huge. A glance at the top of the globe reveals that, absent its blockage with ice, the Arctic is a sort of 21st Century Mediterranean, linking up some of the wealthiest parts of the world, principally the United States, Canada, Russia and Northern Europe. With the opening of the once fabled northwest passage to sea traffic, the trip from Seattle to Rotterdam will shrink by 20% while the much longer trip from Yokohama in Japan to Rotterdam will drop by 40%.

Apart from the promise of high speed sea lanes, the Arctic also holds immense mineral treasures. Scientists estimate that the Arctic may harbor over a quarter of the world's oil and natural gas reserves. Indeed, last year in a brazen assertion of rights, the Soviet Union dispatched a submarine to plant a flag on the sea floor below the North Pole to defend its claim to about a half million square miles of the Artic region. The estimated oil reserves in this region of 586 billion barrels of oil are over twice the proven reserves in Saudi Arabia!

Borgerson points out that the US remains a laggard in grasping the value of the Arctic and securing it. Despite having the world's largest navy, the US only has one seaworthy icebreaker compared to Russia's 18. And the US has held off on signing the reigning convention governing stewardship of the Artic, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea out of fears it limits our options. Unfortunately our options are receding every day.

Borgerson lays out a plan for how to create a multilateral regime to govern the Arctic. But US leadership is required.

Environmental Migrants

The Arctic is just one of many security challenges global warming is raising. A new EU report scheduled for release this week highlights the risk to security of environmental migrants as increasingly extreme weather and higher sea levels potentially displace millions of people in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. The US would probably be the destination of choice for Caribbean and Central American environmental refugees, adding to current immigration pressures. The refugee crisis in and around New Orleans would pale before what we would be likely to behold if sea levels continue their rise, particularly, in the event of a hurricanes, storm or other major weather catastrophes.

Clearly the security challenges of climate change and implications for other issues such as immigration are only now being recognized. We are a long way away from understanding them let alone devising solutions.